LeBron silences Wizards with milestone-filled performance

LeBron silences Wizards with milestone-filled performance
FILE - CLEVELAND, OH - MAY 23: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers goes up for a dunk against the Boston Celtics in Game Four of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2017 NBA Playoffs on May 23, 2017 at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)

By Matt Petersen, NBA.com

Confidence is a necessary NBA asset, especially for aspiring contenders hoping to knock off the mainstay powerhouses. Fresh off their first division title since 1979 and a playoff run to Game 7 of the second round, the Washington Wizards carry confidence in spades. They are young and talented, and sharp-shooting guard Bradley Beal believes they are ready to take the step up to the top of their conference.

"For us, we have all of our pieces. We got our core back together. We've got playoff experience. There's really no excuse for us not to take that next step," Beal told ESPN. "We control our own destiny at this point."

"I feel like we're the best team [in the Eastern Conference]," Beal added.

Their 2017-18 litmus test came early in November, on a nationally televised game against the three-year Eastern Conference standard that is Cleveland.

The Wizards do not fear the Cavaliers, nor their star forward who has owned the East for seven consecutive seasons. They insist the reverse is true. They believe Cleveland and LeBron James fear them. When asked by ESPN's Rachel Nichols whether he felt the Cavaliers purposefully lost games to avoid a second-round matchup with Washington, All-Star guard John Wall didn't hesitate.

"I think if you look at last year, people might say they did or didn't, but I think they didn't want the number one seed for a reason because we would've played them in the second round."

"I think we just give them the best matchup problems out of any team in the East," Wall added.

Wall's comments were opportunistic. The Cavaliers entered Friday night's (Saturday, PHL time) contest on a four-game losing streak, boasting one of the worst defenses in the league and an overall sense of apathy toward the regular season. James's nightly brilliance notwithstanding, the three-time defending conference champions looked old and uninterested.

Until Friday (Saturday, PHL time), when James looked more than interested. He looked engaged. Maybe even enraged.

On Friday night (Saturday, PHL time), James did the opposite of "avoiding" Washington. He attacked them. More specifically, he targeted the Wall again and again and again. He ran pick-and-rolls with whomever Wall was guarding. Once he got the 6’4” guard to switch on him, James put him through a beautiful torture chamber of post moves. He ran pell-mell on the fast break and dunked over space just vacated by Beal and others.

By the time Cleveland finished Washington, 130-122, James was polishing off a full-course meal of 57 points, 11 rebounds, seven assists, three steals and two blocks.

It seemed too coincidental for James to have dominated in such a fashion without using the Wizards' comments as fuel. After all, the performance marked just the second time James attempted 34 shots or more in a regular season game since -- wait for it -- 2006.

Yet after the dust settled, the four-time MVP brushed off any insinuation that his motivation was more than wanting to wrench his team from a four-game losing streak.

"I really don't have a comment about [what they said]," James told reporters. "We've got seven new guys and I'm trying to get these guys focused, get myself focused, get our team focused on what it takes for us to win every night."

Believe him or not, James's performance at the very least should serve notice to those who thought the Cavaliers were showing signs of vulnerability. After the game, James said -- in serious tones -- that he was "almost back to myself" in terms of conditioning. That was after playing nearly 43 minutes, including all of the second half. When Cavs head coach Tyronn Lue asked if his star needed a second-half breather, James replied with a curt "no" before returning to the action. His unrelenting path of destruction obliterated several milestones along the way, including the 29,000 career points barrier and several mini-leaps up league leaderboards.

Those marks serve well to remind the NBA of what James has done. On Friday (Saturday, PHL time), he reminded a young Wizards team of what he can still do.

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